Being Dagmar

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Do you know what a leaf spring is?

I didn’t, until ours broke.

A leaf spring is a piece of metal, in a flattened U-shape, that suspends the body of a trailer above the axle and cushions the ride by acting as a shock absorber. When it breaks, the trailer and its contents (in our case, a boat) drop down on the axle, rendering the trailer unusable.

A functioning leaf spring

A functioning leaf spring

Had we not moved here, I suspect I would have gone my entire life without ever learning about leaf springs, and that would have been okay.

I thought that we’d be simplifying things by moving to a shack in the woods, and growing and gathering our own food. Now I understand that, if you want a simple life, you buy a condo in Manhattan. Once you have that, all you need is a cell phone and a Metrocard.

The list of things you don’t need in Manhattan is much longer than I ever imagined. You don’t need a car or a boat or a trailer or another trailer (one for the boat, one for everything else). You don’t need a string trimmer or a rototiller or another rototiller (one works, one doesn’t). You don’t need a chop saw, a circular saw, a table saw, a reciprocating saw, or a chainsaw. You don’t need a compressor, and you don’t need nail guns. You don’t even need shovels, rakes, or a post-hole digger. And you sure as hell don’t need leaf springs.

The simple life, though, requires all this stuff. If you want to fish, you need a boat and a way to get it to the water, into the water, and out of the water. If you want to grow food, you need tools to move earth. If you want to keep chickens, you have to be able to build a coop and a run. If you want to burn your own wood, you need a way to chop it down and chop it up. If you simply want to own exterior space, you need to be able to cut grass, trim trees, and top-dress the driveway with crushed bluestone.

Unfortunately, the paraphernalia that enables you to do those things also gives you more things to do. Vehicles have to be registered, licensed, and maintained. Tools have to be oiled, sharpened, and charged. And that’s before anything breaks. And things do break. And you can’t call the super.

Our shack in the woods

Our shack in the woods

Over the last year, we have fixed the exhaust system and the wiring on the truck, the cooling system on the car, the gas tank on the boat, and the hub on the boat trailer. And those were just the major items; I won’t bother you with the broken oarlock on the skiff or the slow leak in the compressor or the perpetually deflating tire on the utility trailer.

And now it’s the leaf springs.

For a while there, I was starting to feel overwhelmed. So I did what many of us do when we’re not at our best. I complained to my mother.

If it’s sympathy you’re after, don’t ever complain to my mother. She will give you constructive suggestions, she will quote a relevant poem, she will offer you some lunch, but there will be no poor-dearing or there-thereing.

My mother is on the evenest of keels and, because she takes everything in stride, it’s natural for her to think that everything ought to be taken in stride. The only things that really get her attention are death and serious illness, and serious illness is chancy. My sister-in-law Lisa calls her “the mother who fell to earth.”

When I told my mother about our never-ending to-do list and the last-straw nature of the broken leaf springs, she nodded her head in perfect understanding and told me about what Uncle Frank and Aunt Dag, on whose farm she spent her childhood summers, used to talk about at breakfast.

My great-great-aunt Dagmar Dahlquist came late to farming. She’d been brought up to work in her parents’ grocery stores, and that was what she did. In 1925 she was 43, and everyone assumed that she would live out her life a spinster, behind the counter in the grocery in Carlos, Minnesota.

Then one morning a recently widowed farmer named Frank Palmer came into the store. Dag had known him for years; he came in regularly and was a fixture in the community. On this particular morning, he had clearly dressed carefully, and seemed intent on a purpose.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Palmer?” Dag asked him.

“You can marry me, Miss Dahlquist.”

She did. And, at about the age I am now, she entered into a life that required a slate of skills she didn’t have. She didn’t know the first thing about chickens, or horses, or cows, or sheep, or pigs, all of which were resident on the Palmer farm. She’d never had so much as an herb garden, and had no idea how to grow things. She couldn’t even cook. (She could fix a truck, but Frank didn’t have one.)

She took this in stride and did what any red-blooded, self-respecting, middle-aged woman would do. She learned.

Okay, she didn’t have leaf springs, but she didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing either.

Every morning, at breakfast, Frank and Dag would talk about what needed to be done on the farm. A fence needed mending, the wheat needed sowing, a chicken needed killing, potato bugs needed to be picked off the potato plants. The honey had to be collected. The eggs had to be gathered and taken to the co-op.

Whatever it was, when breakfast was over they went out and did it, with care and good will. They prospered, and built a life that made both of them happy.   It’s that simple.

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Comments

  1. Rick Bibeault says:

    I would have thought leaf springs was something to put into a salad in May…you learn something new every day. Your aunt seems to have been a very interesting woman, something gratefully for us blog readers seems to be in your family’s DNA. Chin up!

  2. Hey, Tamar, I would love to meet your mother. She seems like a no nonsense kind of woman. You may lament over your broken leaf springs, but I think you have the same no-boo-hooing of your mom and perhaps the same perseverance of your great-great aunt. I call you a hanger-on.

  3. Hi Tamar

    You are so right. I inherited a whole swathe of smallholding tools from my aunt. I didn’t need them at the time but reckoned that I might need them in the future. As the tools are almost a hundred years old we have a lot of accidents with old iron heads leaving rotten wooden handles. Now after several near misses (the head of a sledge hammer just missed my head) we examine the handles carefully. Danny broke the neck of a sturdy pick axe last week. I was standing down wind – 20 feet away with the Min Pins locked in the house 🙂

    Smallholding requires lots of tools. If we’ve borrowed them it’s sod’s law that they break and have to be replaced. We shell out for new and have nothing to show for it.

    Gradually we’re replacing our tools. But these don’t have the balance of the old ones. Better to replace the handles I think.

  4. There, there, poor dear…that was because everyone needs it now and again. But I also want to remind you of the New Englander’s Law…”Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. You’re doing fine, dear. 🙂